A lot has transpired in Canadian Indigenous relations since my last contribution here. Turtle Island has played host to the head of the world’s most powerful religious institution; the head of the British Monarchy, of which Canada is a commonwealth state, has died; and a new leader who has expressed racist and anti-Indigenous sentiment has emerged for Canada’s right wing political party. There is a lot of information to unpack up here, but today, I’d like to dive into the Pope’s visit to Turtle Island.
Pope Francis’ visit to Canada had been anticipated since The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (an 8-year investigation into the atrocities committed at the Indian Residential Schools), released their final report in December 2015 (Government of Canada, 2022). The Pope’s first stop on his media-dubbed Apology Tour was the territory of the Nêhiyaw (Cree), Denesuliné (Dene), Niitsítapi (Blackfoot), Stoney Nakoda (Sioux), Tsuut’ina, and Michif on Treaty 6, also known as Edmonton, Alberta, before heading to Maskwacis Alberta, home of the Ermineskin Cree Nation and former site of the Catholic run Ermineskin Indian Residential School. The “school”, more appropriately described as a concentration camp designed to break children’s links to their Indigenous cultures and identities, operated from 1895 through 1975. During its operation, the school saw more than half of its pupils infected with tuberculosis and at least 15 student deaths (National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR), 2022).
While on the ground at Maskwacis, where the roads were forever in disrepair, but freshly paved in record time for the visit, Pope Francis stated, “I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples”. Interestingly, this apologetic statement referred to ‘Christians’, a very broad population, rather than Catholics specifically, whereas in explaining future intentions, he did mention his organization and followers specifically, stating that he would “continue to encourage the efforts of all Catholics to support the Indigenous Peoples”. A no-doubt carefully scripted way to deliver an apology without admitting any guilt on behalf of his organization. See the full transcript of the Pope’s statement in Maskwacis here.
The rest of the Pontif’s trip was spent…well, pontificating. After leaving Maskwacis, he met with parishioners at an Edmonton church for Indigenous peoples, then celebrated a Mass for 65,000 people at a stadium followed by a trip to Lac Ste. Anne to offer prayers to individual’s participating in an annual pilgrimage. The tour continued in Quebec City with a public address, another Mass, private evening prayers with church personnel, another private meeting with the Society of Jesus, and finally a meeting with Indigenous leaders from Eastern Canada (Walking Together, 2022). The trip ended in Iqaluit, Nunavut where the Pontiff met with residential school survivors and attended public performances by Inuit singers and drummers. Another brief apology was offerred for the “evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics” (Hobson, 2022), once again placing guilt on individuals rather than the Roman Catholic institution itself.
Reception to the tour was mixed. Some call it a step in the right direction that lacked sincerity because it was read from a script. Couple this with the Church’s refusal to return cultural artifacts or release the records from the Catholic run residential schools and the mixed emotions Indigenous Peoples are feeling are understandable (Neuman, 2022). Although criticism was present, the Pope’s acknowledgement of harm was healing and cathartic for some and gave them hope for what is to come following the pope’s promises of “a serious investigation into the facts of what took place” (Mandes, 2022). Still, present at many stops along the tour were messages from Indigenous peoples and allies to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery (see photo from Fennario/APTN from a Mass held in Quebec City).
The Doctrine of Discovery originated in 15th century papal bulls that were embedded into Canadian law through court rulings in the 19th century. Legal scholars regard it as ‘legal fiction’ that originated as a permission slip for imperial European powers to forcible seize and pillage non-Christian territories while murdering, enslaving, and forcibly assimilating the Indigenous Peoples of those territories (Forrester, 2022; McIvor, 2022). Because it is embedded into Canadian law, the legal work required would take time to untangle, but a statement from the Pope on the Doctrine would have been an important acknowledgment of the cultural genocide committed by the Church and its followers (Forrester, 2022; McIvor 2022).
While apologies were expressed along this tour, the time spent evangelizing and meeting with worshippers seemed to outnumber the time spent interacting with Indigenous Peoples (see the Schedule description of events here). On top of the time devoted to verbal apology, it is important to consider financial responsibility, which is admittedly, only part of the reconciliation process, however, the Church did rely on Canadian charity to fund the Papal visit, which cost taxpayers $35 million (Canadian Press, 2022c). And this isn’t the first time the Catholic institution has relied on Canadian charity. In 2015, the Harper Government made a still unexplained decision to “forever discharge” the Church from paying more than $79 million owed to Residential School survivors when the church claimed that they were unable to raise even $4 million of the amount owed (Canadian Press 2022a; Canadian Press 2022b), yet the Church was able to raise nearly $1 billion to restore Notre Dame Cathedral (National Catholic Register, 2021).
Since the tour, the Catholic Church has not released any information about future reparations, nor their plans for the Indigenous artifacts or Residential School records that they possess. What is clear though, is that Indigenous Peoples and allies are watching. To stay up to date with progress toward Truth and Reconciliation, monitor Indigenous Watchdog, APTN News, and the Yellowhead Institute.
Canadian Press. (2022a, Aug 20). Canada agreed to ‘forever discharge’ Catholic entities from raising $25M for residential school survivors. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/canada-deal-catholic-church-fundraising-1.6557533
Canadian Press. (2022b, July 13). Federal government to provide more than $35 million for supports during papal visit. National Post. Retrieved from https://nationalpost.com/pmn/news-pmn/canada-news-pmn/federal-government-to-provide-more-than-35-million-for-supports-during-papal-visit
Canadian Press. (2022c, July 13). Federal government to provide more than $35 million for supports during papal visit. CP24 News. Retrieved from https://www.cp24.com/news/federal-government-to-provide-more-than-35-million-for-supports-during-papal-visit-1.5986489?cache=%3Fot%3DAjaxLayout%3FautoPlay%3Dtrue%3FautoPlay%3Dtrue%3FclipId%3D104056%3FautoPlay%3Dtrue%3FcontactForm%3Dtrue
Canadian Press. (2021, Nov 6). Miller ‘dumbfounded’ appeal dropped over Catholic Church;s residential school payments. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/catholic-church-residential-school-appeal-1.6240023
Hobson, B. (2022, Jul 29). Pope Francis wraps Canadian reconciliation visit by apologizing in Inuktitut: ‘Mamianaq’. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/9024332/pope-francis-canada-visit-july-29/#:~:text=Pope%20Francis%20begged%20for%20forgiveness,cultural%20assimilation%20and%20residential%20schools.
McIvor, B. (2022, July 27). What is the Doctrine of Discovery? Indigenous rights in oe minute. Retrieved from https://www.firstpeopleslaw.com/public-education/indigenous-rights-in-one-minute/what-is-the-doctrine-of-discovery#:~:text=The%20Doctrine%20of%20Discovery%20is,lands%20upon%20’discovering’%20them.
Forrester, B. (2022, July 29). Doctrine of Discovery is a ‘legal fiction’, but revoking it won’t herald immediate changes, experts say. APTN National News. Retrieved from https://www.aptnnews.ca/national-news/doctrine-of-discovery-is-a-legal-fiction-but-revoking-it-wont-herald-immediate-changes-experts-say/
Government of Canada. (2022, Sept 29). Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. Retrieved from https://www.rcaanc-cirnac.gc.ca/eng/1450124405592/1529106060525
Mandes, J. (2022, Jul 25. Saskatchewan survivors react to Pope Francis’ apology for residential schools. Global News. Retrieved from https://globalnews.ca/news/9015464/saskatchewan-survivors-react-pope-francis-apology-residential-schools/
National Catholic Register. (2021, Apr 16). Notre Dame fire: Two years later, despite massive cost overruns, officials vow ‘the Cathedral will open’ by 2024. Retrieved from https://www.ncregister.com/blog/notre-dame-two-years
National Centre for Truth and Reconciliaition. (2022). Ermineskin (Hobbema). Retrieved from https://nctr.ca/residential-schools/alberta/ermineskin-hobbema/
Neuman, S. (2022, July 25). The pope’s apology in Canada was historic, but for some Indigenous people, not enough. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2022/07/25/1113498723/pope-francis-apology-canada-residential-schools-indigenous-children
Walking Together Pope Francis Canada 2022. (2022). Schedule. Retrieved from https://www.papalvisit.ca/schedule/
Warrick, J. (2021, Oct 4). Sask. Court file reveals new details of Catholic Church compensation for residential school survivors. CBC News. Retrieved from https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/saskatoon/catholic-church-residential-school-court-documents-1.6198275
Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.